Safaricom vs Telkom vs Airtel

Is it a Kenyan thing, or is it just me? In my quest to enjoy the best of all possible worlds, and perhaps due to a little FOMO; I have Airtel, Safaricom, and Telkom telephone numbers and might just be joining Equitel or even Faiba if it suits me. 🙂

Well, given my rich experience as a multiple line owner, I had to review the big three mobile phone service providers:

Airtel is the network where your credit hardly ever runs out. This has been my experience for real because voice calls and sms are so affordable. I’m always happy to call somebody back because, as I’ve always told everyone, “credit yangu haiishangi” (my airtime never runs out) which is good for me and somehow good for them because it keeps me loyal. They started a price war which Safaricom refused to participate in, but still their voice rates have stayed at a pocket-loving 2 bob per minute across networks for as long as I can remember and they only charge 1 bob for text messages. This is the network you need to be on if you are more of a talker than a texter. If you are a chronic texter – you’re better off buying sms bundles from Safaricom because they are ridiculously cheap.

4G Internet
A little over a month ago, Airtel became the last of the 3 major telcos to start rolling out 4G connectivity, and it was about time. When I only had Safaricom and Airtel lines, I chose to buy Airtel data because they offered more for less. The problem was that then, I had to endure H+ speeds, but not any more.
I’ve not had the chance to use Safaricom 4G but I’ve heard many good things about it. Last year I went to exchange my regular sim for a 3 in 1, and they gave me one that wasn’t 4G enabled. I had thought that since 4G was the new order of things, all sim cards issued would be 4G but apparently not. I am yet to go back for one. Telkom’s 4G can be a little iffy sometimes and is only available upstairs – so if I’m using my phone elsewhere in the house, I have to go back to H+ speeds. The Airtel network can also be iffy but at least 4G is available everywhere in the house. (Even in the toilet).

When Telkom relaunched in mid 2017, their plan was to come in as the great disruptor – their data rates were then the lowest in the market. With their free 1GB daily to everyone on the 4G network, Telkom quickly became the network where my data never ran out. For regular internet users, they came in with offers like 400MB for the daily 50bob bundle while Safaricom was offering 150MB and Airtel, 200MB for the same. It was more of a two-horse data race that Telkom was winning mainly because of 4G and the free daily 1GB. Beyond this, shilling for shilling, MB for MB, Airtel’s data rates were and still are much better than Telkom’s.

Today we are enjoying the Battle of the Bundles – a data war between Telkom and Airtel, which has them now offering 2GB daily for 99 bob. Unless you’re all about streaming internet TV on your gadget all day, I don’t see this as a data bundle for everyday regular use. As for Safaricom, they are not really part of this war, although they have been offering ‘Tunukiwa Internet’ which according to me is also for non-regular internet use. I have used Tunukiwa a number of times myself. For the lower end regular users, Telkom offer you 500MBs for 49 bob which is a steal because the equivalent from Airtel is a mere 200MB.
Generally though, each network has something useful to offer and it ultimately depends on your data needs. Mega users will enjoy the 90-day 100GB bundle for KES 8,999 or the 12GB weekly bundle from Telkom. Airtel’s monthly bundles are a great deal for medium users and at the moment I’m quite enjoying their offers. A major plus is that they offer free Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp and are always giving away free airtime and free data bundles.

Data expiry
Last year, a certain tv presenter made a huge hullabaloo on social media over her Safaricom data which had expired before she could use all of it. Most of her friends and followers joined her in branding Safaricom thieves because of that. Nobody asked her why she did not renew it in time. Although everyone knows it, nobody mentioned that this is an industry standard – if you don’t renew your bundle in good time, what remains of the old bundle will not be rolled over. Furthermore, she should know by now that data just expires without warning. And I understand her frustration because I have lost huge amounts of data on all networks multiple times. But much as the mistake was hers, it would surely have made a difference if Safaricom had sent her a reminder about upcoming bundle renewal. None of the telcos do that. In addition, I think it’s only fair that they allow you to access your unused data (within a reasonable time limit) when you eventually top up. The only warning Telkom and Airtel give you is when your data is about to run out. Airtel notify you when your data usage is at 75% and at 95% while Telkom sometimes tell you when you have 10MB left.

Mobile money
Telkom recently launched T-kash, their mobile money service. I am yet to use it because between Airtel Money & MPESA, I’m covered. Unless they make it cheaper than Airtel Money, I’m simply not interested. I avoid sending money via MPESA because of the exhorbitant charges attached to their transactions. The main reason I use it is that most people I know only send cash via MPESA. Also, nothing compares to Lipa na MPESA Till numbers – charge free and are used by virtually every retailer. Airtel Money & T-kash have a very long way to go before they can catch up with Safaricom’s MPESA. Very few corporate entities actually offer Airtel Money payment options akin to Lipa na MPESA Till Numbers, and whenever you need the service, there’s always an MPESA agent a stone’s throw away. To their credit though, Airtel Money don’t charge you to send money, and their withdrawal charges are way below Safaricom’s. The cherry on top is that you can also pay a number of your bills including Nairobi Water, Kenya Power, DSTV, etc. free of charge via Airtel Money.

Both Telkom and Airtel have the option of topping up via MPESA and one of the ways is via PesaPal Paybill 220220. It’s brilliant and is free for 50 bob and below. I’ve done it numerous times for my Telkom line with no problems at all, but the one time I tried to top up Airtel this way, it took almost 2 days for the transaction to be completed.

Checking balance
Airtel & Safaricom do not deserve a mention here. Let them just borrow a leaf from Telkom on this little thing that makes a big difference. When you dial *131# you get all your balances from Telkom – airtime, bonus airtime, data, rewards points, with their expiry dates.

Advance Airtime
Here, Safaricom and Airtel are polar opposites. With Kopa Kredo – Airtel is that generous creditor who doesn’t hound you to pay back your debt at all, and when you do top up it could be a couple of hours before they deduct their dues. On the other hand, with Okoa Jahazi, Safaricom is the local shylock – prompt with their reminders and if you don’t repay by the due date, they get tough and start talking about “force pay” which I guess is some kind of blacklist for Okoa Jahazi offenders. Oh my, and I’ve been listed twice! When you do top-up, their first communication will be on the status of the debt, after which they will acknowledge that that you have indeed topped up.

Airtel do not have a rewards program. How now? As tight as the competition has become, how can they not have rewards? Still, I’m finding it hard to gripe because their rates are so good.
I’m not sure how many Bonga Points Safaricom offer per shilling spent – I think 1 point per shilling. What I’m sure of is that the most points my line has ever had at one go was maybe 300 points. I redeem them for airtime almost as soon as I earn them, mainly because my Safaricom airtime runs out so fast. There’s no chance for the points to stick around long enough to redeem something big, but they still come in super handy when you’re in need. In my book, they have the most mwananchi-friendly rewards scheme because you can redeem a minimum of 10 points for which you get 3 bob of airtime.
Within a short time being a Telkom subscriber, I earned quite a bit of reward points because internet bundles. I ended up becoming a ziada points aficionado, topping up with one eye on the points because once they reach a certain threshold, I would stop buying airtime and start redeeming them for data. A couple of things that bug me about their system are that: 1) the minimum points you can redeem at the moment is 199 points, and to make it worse you only get a measly 10 bob of airtime for it, and 2) despite what they say, their offer actually comes down to 2 points per 3 shillings spent.

At the end of the day, there is something for you whichever network you choose.

That’s why some of us keep three lines. The reasons you choose one network over another are varied and may come down to something as simple as that free 50 MB they give you every morning like Telkom do, or whether they send you a happy birthday text. A couple of years ago I was shocked when I found out that Safaricom actually send out happy birthday texts to their subscribers, yet they have never sent me one. I was therefore surprised when last December, they wished me and my family “a joyful holiday season and prosperous 2018”. Wow, they remembered I exist, ha ha.

Safaricom has been there, done that. Its focus has moved beyond the basic voice, data and text, to adding more and more value to their subscribers through new, innovative products and services. Telkom is kinda the new kid on the block, still finding it’s footing in the market and offering some sweet deals along the way. Airtel at the moment, looks like the sweet spot right in the middle. Resist if you can.

Edit: I have recently discovered this neat little feature known as “My Data Manager” which is available on both Safaricom and Telkom. When you activate it, you will not be able to use the internet without an active data bundle. It will not touch your airtime no matter what. How is it that I only knew about it in September? Has it always been there? Anyway, all those guys who keep complaining that their airtime has been decimated before they had a chance to purchase data bundles, have no  excuse. I’ve never got it. I mean, when you load airtime with the intention to buy bundles, you should first make sure you have turned data off and if not, at least make sure all your apps are off, so that your airtime remains intact. Now with the data manager, it would be really dumb if your airtime is swallowed up by high data charges. I just wonder what Airtel are waiting for. Give us data manager!

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